Banking at the intersection of mission and opportunity

Story by Evan Sparks
Photos by Kevin Brusie

It’s a sunny summer day in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and we’re getting ready for a party.

Reading Cooperative Bank is about to celebrate the grand opening of the bank’s first branch in the city. There’s a lot to do to get ready, and on top of the event, President and CEO Julieann Thurlow is hosting a board meeting in the brand-new branch.

Outside, traffic is brisk; the bank is located at one of Lawrence’s busiest intersections, right in the center of the historic mill district that made Lawrence famous as a center of industry 180 years ago. Inside, Thurlow and other staff bustle around getting ready for the opening.

Lawrence is one of several “gateway cities” in Massachusetts, so-called for a couple reasons. First, they have often been gateways, past and present, for new arrivals to the Bay State — Irish and Italians in the 19th century, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in the 20th. Second, they stand at a gateway of potential prosperity. Unlike

Boston and its prosperous suburbs, they experience elevated poverty and decay, but with investment hold the promise of future growth.

With 89,000 people — four in 10 of whom are from Dominican descent and another two in 10 of Puerto Rican descent — Lawrence is truly a gateway city for American dreamers. And to Thurlow’s thinking, helping Lawrence’s strivers build their own American dreams is just the latest evolution of banking’s mission.

Lawrence is just 15 miles north of Reading, but in some ways it’s a world apart. In Massachusetts, towns have a much stronger identity than regions, and Reading is a classic New England town with a green common facing a whitewashed Methodist church. It feels very different from Lawrence’s urban web of mills and canals. But in 1886, Reading was part of America’s industrial heartland.

“Workers in those factories lived in factory housing,” Thurlow says. Building on Massachusetts’ history of mutual banking, local leaders across the commonwealth pooled their capital to form a bank to enable the “workingman” to buy his own home. (Working women too — Reading Coop made its first loan to a woman in 1887.)

“We were founded for working people to buy homes,” Thurlow says. “Fast forward to now, where is the financial need? The financial need in our state is in our gateway cities. There’s less competition, there’s less investment. These are lower-income residents, a lot of residents that don’t speak English. And when you actually drive through these cities, you see check cashers on every corner, along with payday lenders, pawnshops and furniture rental companies. Those are clear signs that financial needs are not being met.”

But how did Lawrence get on Reading Cooperative’s radar in the first place? The story of Thurlow’s alertness to this intersection of mission and opportunity goes back a bit farther.

‘The right direction’

Some bankers are born to it, and some fall in by accident. Thurlow is the latter. Born in New York City, she grew up in small towns along the northeast coast, then studying piano in college. “I realized that I was not going to be a concert pianist, and I didn’t want to be a teacher,” she admits.

So she got a job at a savings bank in Massachusetts. “At my first bank, I had some really good mentors, and one advised me and pointed me in the right direction,” she recalls. “I was going to post for a position in the accounting department and he said, ‘No, why don’t you wait for the lending department? I think you’d be a better fit there.’ And I was, and I loved it.”

Thurlow also worked at the FDIC doing bank resolutions during the savings and loan crisis. While she chuckles that she “learned a lot of things not to do, that’s for sure,” she also picked up a greater sense of empathy, built when “you actually see people who actually committed their lives to the banking industry and to a particular bank, and then see it disappear.”

Thurlow, pictured with colleagues in Nahant, Massachusetts, emphasizes the need for more wraparound services in banking. “They can have a relationship with a banker and they can actually develop savings, savings habits, bill paying habits and lower the cost of their relationship with banks.”

In 1993, after she had returned to banking, she got a call from Donald G. Hicks Jr., a colleague from the FDIC days. He had just become president of Reading Coop, and “I recognized that I needed somebody with Julie’s background in the mortgage and commercial lending area,” Hicks says. “She was a person that seemed to be able to take control in situations that needed somebody to take charge.”

Hicks wanted Thurlow to beef up the lending program of what was then a fairly traditional bank. “We were a community bank lending very close to home, not having great policies that a growing bank would need,” he says. Thurlow also innovated in the lending process, making it easier for Reading Coop to serve smaller businesses in its market and carve out a niche not being filled by larger banks, he says. For example, Pat Lee, then the owner of the Horseshoe Grill, a 95-year-old restaurant in North Reading, recalls that “as a single unit operator, I wasn’t getting the nicest receptions from other lending institutions. And Julie came on the scene as our loan officer, and from there it just clicked.”

Leadership and innovation

Not long after she had begun making her mark at Reading Coop, Hicks had a meeting with Thurlow. “I said, ‘Julie, where do you expect to be in this bank in five years?’” he recalls. “She looked me squarely in the eye and says, ‘I want your job.’ So I said to her, ‘Well, that’s the answer I was hoping you would have. Let’s make sure you’re ready to take the job when the opportunity presents itself.’”

Formally, that training involved an MBA and banking school at what is now the ABA Stonier Graduate School of Banking. Less formally, it meant evenings on a Massachusetts ski mountain, where Hicks was on the ski patrol. “Instead of golf we would ski,” says Thurlow. “As my skiing improved, he also shared his wisdom and observations of the industry. He was as frank with me about my shortcomings as he was my talents, but he also provided the tools for me to be a better banker, a better manager, a better leader and a better person.”

In 2006, Thurlow followed in Hicks’ footsteps as president and CEO of Reading Cooperative Bank. As she did, she paid forward the investment others made in her career. “Her leadership style is incredibly approachable,” says Shanna Cahalane, SVP and director of marketing and community development at the bank. “People from any area of the bank can walk up and come on in and have a conversation about something.” And when it comes to the inevitable mistakes that accompany trying something new, “her approach has always been ‘How do we fix this together as a team?’ We’ll learn from it and move along.”

Julie “loves to include people from any area in projects,” says Shanna Cahalane (standing). “If you’re willing to raise your hand and participate, she’s thrilled to have you and your ideas.”

And Thurlow loves new ideas. “She loves to include people from any area in projects,” Cahalane says. “If you’re willing to raise your hand and participate, she’s thrilled to have you and your ideas.”

One of those ideas was a network called Chuck. Thurlow loves to get into the weeds of technology, and under her leadership Reading Coop became a founding member of Alloy Labs, a group of community and midsize banks that came together in focused settings to power innovation cooperatively.

Chuck grew out of lab work around payments and was built through the close collaboration Thurlow has with D.J. Seeterlin, chief innovation and strategy officer at Virginia-based Chesapeake Bank and her successor as chair of ABA’s Core Platforms Committee. Together, they built an open-loop protocol that gives clients the opportunity to direct payments to and from different wallets or destinations using their mobile banking apps.

For example, the sender can use Venmo to “chuck” money to a friend; the friend can then use her bank’s app to apply the money to a checking account, her own Venmo balance or, in the future, perhaps a Starbucks balance or Square Cash. “It wasn’t built on ‘what’s easiest to do in our platform’ — it’s built on ‘what do customers want to do, how are customers already behaving, and how can we build something that enhances their experience inside the bank?’” notes Thurlow. “Developing Chuck has been an incredibly positive experience for us — bringing transactions back into the bank, enhancing security and ultimately taking friction out of our customers’ payment experience.”

Thurlow is “basically getting right out in front for smaller banks with mobile banking, using all sorts of electronic means to help people bank more conveniently and staying up to date with all of the innovations occurring in the fintech world,” says longtime bank board member Jim Liston. “She has our bank at the front end of some of these technologies in the banking context, where we really hadn’t been before.”

Innovation at the core

Thurlow’s ability to get in the weeds of tech while remaining strategic was one reason ABA President and CEO Rob Nichols tapped her to be the first chair of ABA’s Core Platforms Committee in 2018.

“Other bankers were commenting on how the core processors were hampering their ability to compete,” notes Kathleen Murphy, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Bankers Association. “It brought together bankers from all over the country and really started to ask the important questions of the core providers. Julie led that effort and it went on for several years.”

Thurlow leads a board meeting at the new Lawrence branch.

In particular, Thurlow led the development of a set of Principles for Strong Bank-Core Provider Relationships that the cores signed on to. She and the committee also evaluated the core marketplace and identified several emerging and regional cores that could provide competitive pressure. “The impact of that committee was felt immediately, because the cores were much more transparent in what their what their strategies were,” Murphy adds. “And those conversations weren’t taking place until Julie got involved and led that effort.”

Reflecting on the results of the committee’s early work — particularly on contract fairness, access to data and improved client service — former ABA Chair Dorothy Savarese, the retired chair, president and CEO of Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, says “she really broke a lot of ground moving forward contracts that were more fair in terms of the balance of power and also affording community banks more of an access to the technological innovations that were so critical to becoming competitive with larger institutions.”

Advocacy leadership

Thurlow’s detail-oriented energy extends to policy issues too, where she is active at the federal and state level. “I think we tend to hear from the bigger banks,” notes state House Minority Leader Brad Jones (R). “But I definitely think she’s had a positive influence in terms of making sure that I, as a legislator, and my colleagues keep focused on the idea that the banks like Reading Cooperative Bank are integral to the community where people interact.”

Part of that commitment is making the case for mutuality in an environment where some mutuals have made decisions to convert to stock ownership or sell to stock banks. “She actually advocated for regulatory changes that would require supermajorities in terms of changing forms of organization,” says Dorothy Savarese. “She gets the point of mutuality, which is that it is all about the customers and the community. And she lives that every day at Reading Cooperative.”

Kathleen Murphy offers an example of where Thurlow engaged deeply on a policy issue: Massachusetts lawmakers had proposed legislation to create a public bank that would compete against the banking industry. “Julie was involved in a task force to examine that, and ultimately the legislature did not move forward,” Murphy recalls. “She saw it as being so important to be engaged in that process.”

And she stays involved. “She’s just that person that I can call on any given morning, noon and night — because I don’t think she sleeps — and I can get the answer I need right away,” says state Rep. Dan Cahill (D).

Listening to Lawrence

And so it was in a spirit of community commitment, of innovation, of opportunity that Thurlow began to consider how Reading Cooperative could build on Lawrence’s future. Starting in 2015, “when Julie and Reading Cooperative made a commitment to come to Lawrence, they embarked on a listening tour with a diverse array of organizations and businesses to learn what the needs of the community were so that they could adapt the bank to those needs,” says George Ramirez, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership (on whose board Thurlow sits).

Thurlow’s approach of listening is “a beautiful way to start, and very emblematic of Julie’s particular approach and leadership style,” says Jess Andors.

As with the development of Chuck, Thurlow listened first and did not jump to conclusions. She learned that many people in Lawrence were not using the banking system; they were paying more to use check cashers instead and using less convenient and more expensive stored value cards.

She learned that one of the barriers was access. The banks remaining in Lawrence had moved to the edge of town, notes former mayor Dan Rivera. And in the nearly 90 percent Hispanic community, Spanish-speaking bank staff would be essential. It’s not that residents of Lawrence can’t speak English; almost all can. But as current mayor Brian DePeña points out, “if any bank or service is in Spanish, I prefer to think in Spanish.”

Another barrier was product design. Bank products, which are often packaged in bundles, weren’t always transparent. “Banking is complicated,” says Thurlow. “You’re not born with the knowledge that your paycheck gets deposited after your withdrawals come out from online banking — that when you go to the gas station, a hold is placed on your money before the money is actually gone from your account.” The unbanked reported feeling that they understood the check cashing business and stored value cards, even though they were costlier to use.

The listening sessions were “a beautiful way to start, and very emblematic of Julie’s particular approach and leadership style,” reflects Jess Andors, who as head of Lawrence CommunityWorks helped facilitate this listening process.

A responsive strategy

In response to all she and her colleagues learned, Thurlow developed a multipronged approach. First, to address the access issue, they would build a branch in the heart of Lawrence. They occupy the prominent first-floor storefront of a large, modern multifamily building. “It is becoming that beacon that we had hoped for,” notes Gary Sidell of the Bell Tower Commercial Real Estate Group.

Rivera adds that “having a bank willing to be close to where people live in Lawrence is invaluable. It just brings the possibility of success closer.”

To enhance that possibility, the bank also requires all staff in Lawrence to be “fully bilingual,” says Maxine Hart, EVP and chief human resource officer at Reading Coop. “We worked with a not-for-profit in the city of Lawrence that was also running an entry-level bank teller training program. So we got some of our employees from there.”

To solve the product problem, after realizing how similar their “do no harm” checking concept was, Reading Coop launched a Bank On-certified product called “Honest Checking” with no overdrafts and other friction points identified removed. Certified since November 2020, the product also meets consumers’ need for check cashing and deposit services.

Thurlow, joined by Mayor Brian DePena (right), officially opens the Lawrence branch in June 2023.

But as enthusiastic as Thurlow is about Bank On, she emphasizes that it’s just a start. “I think there need to be a lot more wraparound services that are included,” she says. “Customers need to have a relationship with a banker so they can take advantage of bank products and can develop savings habits, bill paying habits and lower the cost of their relationship with banks — building toward the kind of relationship depositors have with their cooperative bank. You don’t buy a house without a checking account first. And everyone in the city dreams of owning their own home one day.”

Building clients’ banking know-how will become increasingly critical in a “faster payments environment where credits are immediate and withdrawals are also immediate,” she adds. “The person who actually is inside the banking system and using banking products gets to pay the lowest because they can shop online, they can buy things online or they can go into a store and take advantage of a sale.”

As part of the wraparound vision, Reading Coop expanded its engagement in Lawrence during the COVID-19 pandemic — getting hundreds of thousands of dollars issued in Paycheck Protection Program loans for Lawrence businesses, Andors notes, and joining a four-bank loan fund targeting bankable businesses in the city, adds Derek Mitchell, who runs LEADS. “Julie was the first person I called, and it took her less than one minute to say yes.”

“When Julie and Reading Coop came to Lawrence, I don’t think they had an agenda,” Mitchell adds. “That was evident from the way they interacted with partners, the level of investment they put into the community outreach and the malleability of their work. This branch and some of their programs and even the relationship they have in the city already is evidence that they heard what people had said. They’re now delivering on that.”


About Author